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Austerity hits home

November 21, 2012

If you are anything like me you will have been aghast at news coverage of hard hitting austerity measures in far off places like Spain, Portugal and Greece over the last couple of years.

But today I have published a draft budget for the City Council which I fear for many of us will be the first taste of austerity closer to home.

Faced with unprecedented Government cuts and mounting cost pressures the council must save £90m over the next three years – that’s more than a third of our current annual budget.

Cuts on this scale are going to hurt. I didn’t go in to politics to close libraries, leisure centres, and care homes – but this is the local reality of national public spending cuts. This is a dark day for public services in Newcastle. The impact will be felt in every street and every home across our city.

I am angry that we have come to this. Angry that the Government’s spending cuts have hurt councils more than any other parts of the public sector, and angry that our research shows that council cuts hit hard pressed areas like Newcastle more than feather bedded parts of the South East.

None of this is fair. But it is what we have come to expect from a Government hell bent on reducing the deficit at all costs. It would seem that people matter far less than percentages.

So we must take control of our destiny and create a radically different type of council which is fit for purpose in these straitened times. Building on our cooperative values we will give our staff and our communities a bigger say in how local services are delivered. We won’t be doing what many councils have done – outsourcing public services to the private sector. We believe there are alternatives which allow staff to take control of social enterprises motivated by social good and not profit margins.

We will use our City Deal and our ability to raise capital funds to invest £400m in Newcastle’s economy over the next three years. Whilst the council faces a tough time we will still be doing our bit to invest in the jobs and infrastructure the city needs to stay confident and lead the region’s economic recovery. Capital investment will also help us to remodel our services so they are more efficient – upfront investment will lead to long term savings which will make services sustainable into the future – for example telecare and sheltered housing schemes will help more older people stay in their own homes close to friends and family rather than have to go into expensive residential care.

Whilst our city has been treated unfairly, we have tried to ensure that fairness informs and underpins every part of our budget. The council will be much smaller and do much less in the future. We will continue to provide a service to everyone, but some services must be targeted more towards those who need our help and support most.

In the age of austerity doing more of one thing simply means doing less of another. Making these tough choices has required the judgement of Solomon. To balance our books we are forced to choose between cuts to a range of services cherished and valued by everyone.

I understand the campaigns against library closures and leisure centres. I don’t want to see them close either – but faced with an unenviable choice between these treasured services and life or death care and support for children and young people, the vulnerable and the elderly we have to do what we believe is right.

I hope that some of the support and energy that people have shown in their defence of services which are at risk might be redirected towards working with us to help keep some of these facilities running through greater community involvement and ownership. We would welcome the opportunity work with any community group that feel it could play a role in protecting local services – just like the groups now operating swimming pools in Jesmond and Fenham. As individuals, we might all consider what more we can do to contribute to our community and to our city.

Our budget is not yet decided and is published for consultation. We genuinely want to hear about how these proposals will impact on people across our community and if there are suggestions which will help lessen the blow then we are all ears. But we have to be realistic. A £90m cut cannot be pain free.

Even after all these cuts, our understanding of the Government’s latest spending plans suggests that there will be even more to find in three years time. Unless the Government has a change of heart and recognises the damage being done to hard pressed communities, we expect further cuts.

It is an unpalatable vision and not one we are prepared to accept. We will come out fighting for Newcastle’s future – taking the battle for fairness to the heart of government and continuing to do all we can to generate jobs and investment, tackle inequalities and create decent neighbourhoods.

We will stand up for the people of Newcastle and we hope you will join with us to stand up for your community. I hope as many people as possible will respond to our budget consultation. Today I am writing to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, to express my dismay that their cuts have put our city in this position. I will continue to share your views with the Government in the hope that they begin to understand how unfair it is for the most hard pressed communities to be hit hardest by spending cuts.

Draft budget proposals have been published on the council website and you can have your say on www.letstalknewcastle.co.uk/budget2016.

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